The practice of self-flagellation did not die out with the Middle Ages. In an updated form, it survives in the west of Ireland, manifesting itself in the collective lunacy of what is the biggest mountaineering event, certainly in the British Isles, and probably in Europe. Annually, on Reek Sunday, the last in July, upwards of 30,000 people make the tortuous ascent of the 2,500-foot Croagh Patrick mountain in County Mayo. According to the legend, it was from the summit of the mountain, or reek, that St Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland.
Even as I arrived, amid wind and rain, at 1.3Oam, torchlights were flashing from high on the hillside. There were about two dozen cars in the car park, and much activity as small groups of people prepared for their ascents. I ignored all this without a twinge of conscience, and curled up in a sleeping bag in the back of the car. I have always regarded mountain climbing as a pleasure rather than a penance.
St Patrick clearly had reservations about my attitude, for the battering of rain on the roof of the car increased to a ferocity which precluded any possibility of sleep. At six o’ clock I looked out onto an amazing scene. The car park had filled beyond capacity, and was disgorging an enormous number of people onto the hill. I hurriedly ate a cold breakfast, washed down with tea from a flask, pulled on boots and waterproofs, and stepped out to join the hordes.
I easily avoided the first temptations of this pilgrims’ progress: the ice-cream and hot-dog vans which blocked the way to the track. Next came the sellers of staffs. In more than 30 years of mountain climbing, I have never seen people carrying five-foot wooden staffs to help them climb. The occasional walking stick, perhaps, or an ice axe in winter, but a staff? Never. Here, virtually everyone carried one. Perhaps someone had seen a picture, in a history book, of a medieval pilgrim and assumed that a staff was an essential piece of equipment. Whatever the reason, several local entrepreneurs must have devastated the woods of North Mayo during the previous week.
From the statue of St Patrick, which guarded the start, a multitude of pilgrims wound up the track and across the shoulder, to be swallowed by the cloud that hid the upper slopes of the mountain. The brightcolours of clothing contrasted sharply with the drab brown and grey of the hillsides and the peat stain of the river that rushed down beside the track. At no point in the procession could I see a gap of more than two or three yards between any groups of walkers.
All ages were represented, from infants to pensioners. One four-year-old was making her third ascent, the previous two having been on her father’s back. A great bull of a man, with the florid look of a farmer, walked slowly upward, eyes downcast in meditation, lips silently muttering the Hail Marys he counted on the rosary beads hanging from his fingers. A group of teenagers were a bit more boisterous, and carried with them a party rather than a penitential atmosphere. Some waved football flags and remarked on the chances of Mayo winning the Connaught final, which was to be played later in the day.
Footwear was varied. Some wore boots, though most were in trainers or even less adequate attire, which slid dangerously over the black mud and loose stones of the track. The real flagellants, however, continued the ancient tradition of the pilgrimage by hobbling shoeless. The teams of ambulance volunteers, posted at points along the track, would be kept busy for the day, as would the purveyors of drinks, whose makeshift shelters stood every few hundred yards.
Along the shoulder of the mountain, the gradient eased for half a mile. For a short time, the weather also looked as though it might relent. Sun shone briefly over the mountains to the south, while in the north, the many islands that studded Clew Bay could, with patience, have been counted. The cloud and drizzle, however, clung resolutely to the upper slopes of Croagh Patrick. This, in a way, was perhaps fortunate, for the last few hundred feet, consisting of steep, loose, clattering scree, present a problem of the type serious mountaineers would make a long detour to avoid. Here, however, the pilgrims simply accepted it as part of the ordeal.
The scene at the summit almost defied description. A small church occupied the very highest point. Inside a glass porch at the front of this, a priest intoned the prayers of the Mass into a microphone, while hundreds of the faithful huddled around, listening in the mist. Many had not even removed their caps. Others gossiped and smoked cigarettes as though they were at a village fair. One seemingly endless queue slowly passed through a tunnel marked ‘Confession’, to the left of the porch, while a similar queue was consumed by another tunnel to the right, marked ‘Holy Communion. Throughout the entire day, from 5am to 3pm, Mass would be said every half hour.
At the same time, a second large group was performing the completely independent ritual of circling the church 15 times, reciting a fixed number of players during each revolution. A smaller, equally independent group carried out a similar manoeuvre around a vestigial shrine at the top of the scree slope, while about ten yards from the church, the soft drinks stall continued doing a roaring trade.
Such is the everyday nature of religion among the people of rural Ireland, that nobody appeared to notice the absurd incongruity of it all. And yet I am convinced that something genuinely religious was shining through the absurdities. In spite of the cold and discomfort, these people were really enjoying themselves, many perhaps achieving something they did not think themselves capable of. Is not this what religion is, or should be, all about?
As I made my descent, after the Mass had ended, the numbers I passed on their way up the mountain were, if anything, slightly greater than they had been earlier. Back in the car park, the entrepreneurs were still at it. “You’ve climbed the mountain,” shouted a T-shirt seller, “now you can wear it.”
When I reached my car, a boy ran up and asked if I was leaving. His father was eagerly awaiting the appearance of a parking space. I spent several minutes finding a way out of the maze, then drove a mile-and-a-half along the road before I could find space to stop for a cup of tea. It occurred to me that, over the next year, probably no more than a few dozen people would climb Croagh Patrick. Perhaps one or two of these, at most, would be Irish. The rest would be from across the sea.
A small group of youths walked past on their way to Westport. One was admiring his football flag, and remarking how the rain on the mountain had washed it cleaner than any detergent. In the afternoon, he would be convinced of4he effectiveness of prayer. Mayo won the match.